Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystem analysis at the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington, said, “We are on the cusp of a point where the whole edifice could collapse.”
If the land agency’s share is taken out, the plan’s objectives in providing old-growth habitat for the owl cannot be met, Mr. Franklin said.
Dick Prather, the Bureau of Land Management official leading the project to revise the forest plans, said the new strategy tried to remedy the failure of the Northwest Forest Plan to produce the amount of lumber expected.
Whether the agency’s move will lead to a new round of timber wars is unknown. The conflict in the 1980s was a public relations defeat for all concerned, with environmentalists being painted as extremists and timber interests as wantonly destructive.
But here on the steep, forested hillsides along the Rogue River, a skirmish over the fate of 514 acres of old trees offers a taste of what might happen in the current tug of war over timber.
At issue is a timber sale, informally called the Kelsey-Whisky sale after nearby creeks that feed the Rogue River. It contains towering Douglas firs 100 years old or more, which provide the kind of landscape the owls favor. When cut, the trees become lumber for companies like the Rough & Ready Lumber Company of Cave Junction, Ore.
Rough & Ready’s owners plan to turn the timber into building materials and expect to make a profit, despite the current housing slump, said Jennifer Phillippi, the company’s president.
But the spotted owl’s needs have gotten in the way.
As required by the Endangered Species Act, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service judged that sales like the Kelsey-Whisky one would not endanger the species’ eventual recovery.
That decision was challenged in court by the Oregon Natural Resources Council, now renamed Oregon Wild. Doug Heiken, a representative of that group, said the fish and wildlife agency had given no indication of how many owls would be harmed by this logging.
With court reversal of the agency’s judgment likely, the Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its blessing for the Kelsey-Whisky sale, and plans for logging were suspended.
On the larger landscape, the Bureau of Land Management’s plan must have a similar scientific underpinning. An advisory committee has devised a plan that allows for some increase in logging — but not as much as the agency first proposed.
Bush administration officials in Washington suggested that a second option be prepared. As written, that option could allow for much more logging on the 2.2 million acres.
The new option sets aside no territory for the owl. Instead, it provides for ad-hoc decisions based on ongoing evaluations of the owl’s health. Crucial to both options was a determination that owls can thrive outside old-growth stands.
This summer, scientists, including those whose work was cited by the fish and wildlife agency, accused the service of misusing and cherry-picking the available science.
In response, Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said the Washington supervisors had asked if a second option was feasible. In an interview, Ms. Scarlett said: “The idea that any science was interfered with could not be more inaccurate. No scientific document changed, no scientific conclusions were altered — just zippo, zero.”
Still, the scientific outcry insures that the recovery plan will be reworked. David Wesley, the official, based in Portland, Ore., who heads the fish and wildlife advisers, conceded, “We did push a little too far” by using inadequate data when determining where owls can thrive.
If the fish and wildlife advisers decide the owl needs more old-growth forests, the land agency, like Rough & Ready Lumber, will have a plan without a scientific blessing. If not, the agency could probably proceed with expanded logging.
In that case, environmentalists say, the truce protecting the owl would be dead.Continue reading the main story
A picture caption on Thursday with an article about a renewed dispute in the Pacific Northwest over spotted owls misspelled the surname of a woman shown measuring a Douglas fir. She is Chandra LeGue, not LaGue.
Curious, Forsman scouted and listened hard, eventually realizing he was hearing a bird he had never heard before. Later that summer, his first northern spotted owl flew in.
The owl, characteristic of its breed, showed little fear. It gave Forsman a "big brown-eyed look."
"Once I heard what they sounded like," he says, "I started looking for them."
What Forsman and fellow researchers found after that summer of 1968 led to the owl's listing as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act on June 26, 1990 -- 20 years ago today.
Spotted owls are welterweights as owls go, averaging 1.3 pounds and 18 inches long. But their listing opened the Northwest's timber wars, a heavyweight slugfest between environmentalists and loggers, city and country.
The listing saved precious old-growth stands, repositories of clean water and diverse critters. But it sharply curtailed harvests on federal forests. That put more logging pressure on Oregon's limited state forests, shuttered mills and cut the state's total harvest in half.
Northern spotted owl timeline
1970s: Researchers begin focusing on owl, tracking it.
1973: Spotted owl first cited as potentially threatened with extinction.
1974: Barred owl, a more aggressive spotted owl competitor, first spotted in Oregon.
1980s: Research indicates owl numbers drop as loggers harvest in older stands.
June 26, 1990: Spotted owl is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
1991: A federal judge issues an injunction that shuts down federal timber sales on most westside forests in Oregon and Washington.
1994: Clinton administration adopts Northwest Forest Plan, reserves nearly 6 million acres of federal forest.
2004: Bush administration says owl still faces enough risk to warrant continued federal protection.
2007: Bush administration proposes reducing spotted owl's designated habitat in federal forests by 23 percent. A timber industry lawsuit, still under review, says reduction not enough.
2008: After five years of work, U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposes increased logging on Oregon lands, in part to fulfill harvest goals not met under the Northwest Forest Plan.
2009: Obama administration drops BLM plan.
Forsman, now a 62-year-old wildlife biologist with gray hair and three Oregon State degrees, still conducts research from the Forest Service's science laboratory in Corvallis. He and other researchers figure the spotted owl population is declining about 2.9 percent a year .
Oregon's annual drop is in the 2 to 3 percent range. The decline is worse to the north, where the barred owl first arrived, with the decline in Washington around 7 percent a year. In British Columbia, the spotted owl is nearly gone.
It's too soon to write the owl's epitaph, Forsman says -- the evidence in British Columbia is they hang on for a long time even as their numbers dwindle.
But the trend isn't good. Since the barred owl arrived in force, he says, "we've never seen the spotted owl population go up anywhere."
Speaking for wildlife
Forsman, who grew up hunting, trapping and fishing outside Eugene, was the first to count spotted owls in earnest, imitating the birds' calls, climbing trees, documenting nests. California and Washington researchers soon followed.
The new research found them in higher numbers than expected, clustered in older stands full of flying squirrels and other prey.
Over time, Forsman says, it became clear that logging in pristine old growth and in mature stands last burned in the 1800s was squeezing the bird.
Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, was involved when the listing came down. "We were absolutely shell-shocked," he says.
By 1994, the harvest from Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management forests in Oregon plummeted. With it went prime timber jobs.
In 1989, logging on federal lands accounted for more than half of Oregon's harvest. As of 2008, it fell to less than 10 percent, though Oregon remains the top U.S. producer of softwood lumber because of logging on private, tribal and state forests.
The Clinton administration's Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 reserved 6 million acres but was supposed to guarantee specific amounts of logging on other lands. Those numbers never materialized. That's left the federal forests more vulnerable to catastrophic fires, Geisinger says, putting a premium on thinning projects to reduce the risk.
"We know we're not going back to the harvest levels of the '70s and '80s," he says. "But we've got to do more than we're doing now, if for nothing else than the health of the forest."
Forsman and other scientists agree that the relatively dry forests on the east side and in southern Oregon could use measures such as thinning and clear-cut corridors to act as fire breaks. There's much more debate when it comes to wetter westside forests.Forsman says he hates seeing the lost jobs. He has testified in court cases as protesters marched outside and log trucks blared their horns. His dad was a carpenter. His five brothers all have jobs tied to timber or construction.
"But I feel like it's my job to try and be a spokesperson for wildlife, so at least when we make decisions we don't make them in a vacuum."
He also concedes a soft spot for spotted owls.
Forty years ago, he rescued a stranded juvenile spotted owl from the first nest he found, about 15 miles west of Corvallis. He tended her for 30 years with help from his wife and three children, taking her to schools and roadshows as an ambassador for the species.
"They have this unique personality," he says. "It reaches out and grabs you."
After the 1990 listing, researchers saw signs that the spotted owl population might be stabilizing. Then the barred owl began its rapid rise.
Barred owls, from east of the Rockies, are more aggressive than spotted owls and less finicky, eating everything from rodents to crayfish to snails.
Those traits help them thrive in a smaller range, quickly build their populations and win the competition for territory and food.Kristen Boyles, a Northwest staff attorney for the environmental law group Earthjustice, says the spotted owl would be far worse off without the listing.
It has also increased support for preserving old-growth forests, down to about 10 percent of their historical level, Boyles says.
"The spotted owl has become our shorthand for that."
Forsman figures the total spotted owl population is down to a couple of thousand pairs in Oregon and Northern California, fewer in Washington.
Wildlife managers are contemplating shooting barred owls to see if that helps spotted owls.
Forsman hopes the two species can coexist in the long run, despite recent evidence to the contrary.
A site near Santiam Pass, about 40 miles north of Forsman's onetime summer roost, is Oregon's longest-running spotted owl nesting site.
Last year, a pair of barred owls showed up. This year, Forsman says, there were no signs of spotted owls.
-- Scott Learn